Marx, Religion, Alienation and how it is Relevant to Society Today Pt 1
Although Marx wrote about European society in the 19th Century, his work is much the subject of intense and lively discussion of sociologists today. I aim to convince the reader that the 2 Marxian concepts of religion and alienation can still contribute to our understanding of today’s society.
Alienation and Religion as Conceived by Marx
Religion and alienation are closely intertwined, according to Marx, who used the capitalistic economic systems of society as a foundation for his theories. In Capitalism, resources were privately owned by the bourgeoisie, the upper ruling class who ruled the proletariat; the working class. The proletariat depended on the bourgeoisie for jobs, exchanging their labor in return for income to support their families. This capitalistic system created feelings of alienation among the proletariat who were at the mercy of the bourgeoisie. In essence, alienation involves a feeling of disconnection from one’s true self, and this could manifest in several ways.
The capitalistic system was based on the principles of supply and demand, and workers would sell their labor in exchange for money to buy provisions for the families. Illustrating alienation using the assembly line worker, Marx observed how these jobs often stripped down the production process into micro elements, and workers were each tasked with a ‘figment of a job’; one worker would be in charge of screwing in the right front legs of a chair, while another might be tasked to attach the cushion onto the chair seat. Marx believed that people were inherently creative beings with the need to self-actualize and fulfill their potential. The capitalistic system alienated the worker from his own creativity, likening him to a cog in a machine. Besides, the product produced by the worker was taken away by the capitalist, alienating the worker from his own product. As the nature of the jobs each worker adopted was so trivial, the worker felt no connection to the production process either; the harsh and punishing conditions that the workers labored under caused them to be alienated socially too in this impersonal method of production.
Marx said that religion was a symptom of alienation, as it was the “opium of the masses.” Marx said that people turned to religion to provide their meaningless and miserable day-to-day lives with purpose and joy, just like how people today take pills as a substitute for happiness when they are depressed. As such, Marx theorized that religion was a not only a tool of oppression the bourgeoisie used to appease the masses, but also a form of protest against reality.
Contemporary Society and its Traditional Ailment of Alienation
In today’s society, the gap between the rich and the poor is at its widest. This concept of alienation is tricky to apply, although both the rich and the poor experience alienation in today’s capitalistic system with differing extents of awareness.
In developing countries where there is clear exploitation of labor, workers are at the mercy of their employers when they sell their labor as a commodity. Classic examples that I can think of are cases where children work in sweatshops, and in call centers for big multinational corporations that are located in countries such as India where outsourcing these jobs help companies to cut costs. In situations like this, when the worker has little autonomy over his work and he is under strict surveillance, Marx’s concept of the alienated worker is still highly relevant to our understanding of society and religion.
How about those white-collar professionals or business owners? I think that they do not escape alienation. In contemporary society, market forces that award certain kinds of prestige to certain jobs drive our economy. Often, these jobs are high paying, requiring workers to have high educational qualifications and experience. Out of practicality, people often choose their fields of study and careers based on future employment prospects, sacrificing their passion on the grounds of being practical. In Singapore, this is especially true as our university courses prepare undergraduates for sectors that are deemed to fuel economic growth; even now degrees in the fine arts are still taking off slowly as students themselves are wary of post graduation job security. While wealth opens doors to opportunity and enables you to live comfortably, there are some things like happiness and meaningfulness that money cannot buy. World Health Organization reported a staggering 15% rate of severe depression in developed countries, and this is a symptom of alienation.
Contemporary Society and Religion – the Time-Honored Remedy to Alienation
In both cases above, Marx’s view of religion being a fantasy created by men who turn to it for a false sense of comfort and joy can be applied, as we observe that religion seems to provide a common platform for the expression of worship that does not distinguish or discriminate between the different social classes, especially when people claim to worship the same god.
Read part 2 HERE
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Marx, G. T. (1967). Opiate or Inspiration of Civil Rights Militancy Among Negroes. MIT. Retrieved March 22, 2010, from http://web.mit.edu/gtmarx/www/opiateorinspiration.html
Murray, B., & Fortinberry, A. (2005, January 15). Depression Fact Sheet: Depression Statistics and Depression Causes. Depression Solutions with the Uplift Program: Depression Self Help, Relationship Help, Depression and Anxiety Resources, Treatment and Information. Retrieved April 2, 2010, from http://www.upliftprogram.com/ depression_stats.html#5